The Political Economy of Land in Early Virginia
In addition to the other momentous events of 1619, the year also marked the Virginia Company’s first widespread granting of private land to colonists. The private land grants have long been seen as a natural outgrowth of a peculiarly English colonial desire to own and exploit land in the Americas, and as a first step toward the construction of a Lockean liberal settler society. This essay challenges these assumptions by recovering the long and complex debate within the Virginia Company about the virtues and pitfalls of offering planters private land. It traces different schemes for establishing landownership and connects them to competing ideas about market regulation and political economy in contemporary England. The essay ultimately argues that the system of plantation estates that developed in the 1620s, operated by private planters with indentured laborers but retaining some civic functions, was a compromise between these two models. It represented a unique evolution of English thinking about landownership, commerce, and civic order, which can only be fully understood by acknowledging the complex negotiation over private land that wracked the Virginia Company in the late 1610s.
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